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The Lion and the Serpent

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An uneven square of early afternoon sunlight crept wearily across the floor by Draco’s feet. It looked like he felt: insubstantial, immaterial, trapped in a slow progression through space. He shook his head, amused at his own sour thoughts. Here he was, sitting on a comfortable couch in a light, bright, well-appointed flat that was, in some ways at least, his own. He wasn’t chained in a cell, or being forced to perform horrendous acts under threat of personal or familial harm. He was free, at least in theory.

So why do I still feel so trapped?

It had been a little more than two weeks since the horseback riding fiasco, and Harry was back at work. Draco still felt a flicker of amusement at himself every time he thought of Potter by his first name, or heard his own given name from Harry’s lips. They seemed to have settled into something resembling civility, at least outwardly: first names, cordial greetings in the mornings and evenings when Harry returned from work, most dinners spent together in usually companionable silence. Every so often, Harry would send an owl that he would be getting dinner with coworkers or, more often, working late, and Draco would make something simple for himself and eat at the table alone. He cherished those solo evenings when he didn’t have to worry about asking questions that Harry seldom seemed to want to answer, or examine Harry’s every movement for signs of annoyance or exhaustion. He actually felt a little guilty at how much he enjoyed evenings alone – further proof, he supposed, of how little he appreciated his new life, and how poorly suited he was to being anyone’s husband.

One of the sheets of paper he had balanced on his lap drifted to the floor, and he bent over to pick it up with an air of bemused exhaustion. When had he become so easily distracted? It seemed to have gotten harder to concentrate on simple tasks since he had left Azkaban. He wondered if it was a sign he was getting older, or perhaps he had always been absent-minded like this, just never noticed it so often until now.

It had felt difficult to concentrate on things during his sixth year of Hogwarts, too.

He blinked hard and focused on the paper in his hand. It was a floorplan, one of several that Harry had left for him to look at over the last few days: possibilities for their new flat, provided by the Ministry. Draco had been putting off looking at them – every time he thought about the Ministry, the nausea spiked – but Harry had mentioned it this morning over breakfast and Draco did not want to keep anyone waiting.

Step by step, he thought to himself for the thousandth time. Minute to minute. Just don’t do anything stupid.

The flat in his hand looked similar to their current setup, with the addition of a few extra rooms. “Receiving room,” “drawing room,” and “living room” were all inked into separate adjoining squares alongside “kitchen,” “study,” and “master bedroom.” It all felt depressingly like Malfoy Manor, except without the third story.

It also seemed to indicate that their semi-private life would not last much longer. Harry had started dropping hints that suggested Kingsley’s last few missives had included invitations to social events, or encouragements to host their own gatherings. Logically, Draco saw the importance of being seen in public together, especially at high-society gatherings, in front of photographers. That was the whole point of the marriage, after all: for him to be seen as a reformed Death Eater, atoning for the sins of his family, back in the regular world. Building bridges and all that.

The fact that just thinking of stepping into a room full of witches and wizards watching him on Harry’s arm made him want to sink through the floor was completely beside the point, of course. He knew that, sooner or later, he would have to start attending dinner parties. It was just still so soon, not even a full month since he had been in Azkaban, and the last dinner parties he had attended had been hosted by his mother and attended solely by Death Eaters and the Dark Lord. 

Fortunately, every time Harry had brought it up, he had dropped it again almost immediately. Draco was fairly certain this was due to his own total inability to respond properly, and felt embarrassment curling in his chest. It hadn’t yet come to Harry having to force him into anything, but Draco harbored no illusions: if he didn’t get his act together soon, Harry would do what was necessary.

Draco swallowed hard. Step by step. It was his mantra, and let him shut everything else out to focus only the task at hand. Right now, that meant picking his top three floor plans to show Harry that evening.

He could do that. Right? He could pretend, for just a few moments, that he had an opinion worth sharing -- if only to keep Harry from telling Kingsley that he was being obstinate.

The sun had moved several inches by the time he laid the floorplans carefully on the coffee table, stood up, and stretched his arms over his head. His stomach rumbled and Draco headed to the kitchen, meaning to see if any of last night’s dinner was still in the cupboard. He had only gone a few steps, however, when a small black owl flew in through the open living room window. Draco tensed, but forced himself to accept the scroll calmly. If it was from the Minister, he would put it on Harry’s desk. Simple.

He wished his hands would stop shaking. When had he become so nervous?

The owl flew away without waiting for a response, and Draco examined the seal on the parchment. His heart leapt. His own name was written neatly about a coat of arms bearing a lion, an eagle, a snake, and a badger. It looked so familiar, so safe—

But no. He squashed that feeling at once. Hogwarts was not safe for him, should not be safe for him. Not after what he had done. He would do well to remember that.

Taking a deep breath, Draco slid his finger between the wax and the parchment, taking care not to ruin the seal. Neat, spidery handwriting filled the several pieces of paper tucked within: a list of books, a suggested list of supplies, and instructions for reaching Platform 9¾ on September 1.

It was his acceptance letter for a final year at Hogwarts. Professor McGonagall had kept her word.

Draco found himself pacing furiously up and down the hallway, and finally hurled himself into the bedroom where he sprawled on the bed, parchment spread out around him, and examined the book list like a starving man seeing food. It was a generally innocuous list of reference books, spell books, and historical treatises, each accompanied by the course, or courses, for which it was required. He ran his finger down the list and found entries for Advanced Potions, Advanced Transfiguration, Advanced Charms, Ancient Studies, Arithmancy, and Defense Against the Dark Arts.

A smaller note fluttered onto the bedspread, and Draco picked it up, confused. It was a personalized note from the headmistress herself.

Mr. Malfoy –

I have taken the liberty of assigning you courses based on your previous conversation with Professor Severus Snape in your fifth year. Should your career aspirations have changed, please inform me at your earliest convenience.

Defense Against the Dark Arts is my own choice for you. Please respond with any concerns.

Hogwarts looks forward to welcoming you for your final year.

Sincerely,

MM

Draco read it again, hardly daring to believe it wasn’t some elaborate, cruel joke. He didn’t think that Minerva McGonagall was the elaborate prank type, but becoming a student again seemed equally implausible.

No, he reminded himself, again pushing down the happiness that threatened to surface. I killed Albus Dumbledore. I let Death Eaters into the castle. Hogwarts might accept him for another year, but he could not let himself think of it as the home it had been. Everything had changed.

Carefully, Draco stacked the pieces of parchment together and put them on the top of his dresser. He meant to go back out to the living room, perhaps pick up a book from Harry’s room or continue looking at the floorplans, but something stopped him, drew him towards the closet. Towards the loose floorboard he had found that first, disastrous night of their marriage (“Ugh,” Harry had said when confronted with intimacy with Draco, and of course, Draco couldn’t blame him). He felt his skin start to crawl with residual shame and lingering fear, but felt those feelings recede as he withdrew the small roll of parchment stowed beneath the floor.

Open me again when you are somewhere safe read the parchment, just as it had when the dark figure had passed him in the hallway.

“I’m safe,” Draco whispered, as he had nearly every day since the marriage, and the writing disappeared, replaced by more words in an achingly familiar script.

My dear son, he read in his father’s neat hand. I am overjoyed at your change of fortune. Please accept my sincere congratulations on your newfound freedom. I hope that you and Mr. Potter will be very happy together.

The words had lost their initial power under the wear of repeated readings. Still, Draco felt his breath hitch, his cheeks burning. The words themselves looked kindly on paper; in his father’s voice, he knew, they would sting with scorn.

I look forward to whatever happy events might bring us together again, the letter continued cryptically. Think of me, Draco, and know that you are never far from my thoughts.

With love,

Your father

Draco took a deep breath and lowered the letter to the bed. It was folly, pure and piercing, to keep this letter. If he was discovered with a letter from an Azkaban prisoner (and how had Lucius even gotten the letter out of Azkaban in the first place?), to say nothing of a former Death Eater, he didn’t imagine even Harry would be able to keep him from people like Weasley. Hell, Harry would probably put him back in Azkaban himself. Draco harbored no illusions about the nature of their relationship. Potter was kind, considerate, attentive – but only because he had to be. There were appearances to keep up.

Appearances that Draco would shatter with this letter. 

Still, something kept him from burning it – fear, but of what? Of the man who had raised him with an iron fist? Of Warden, watching every spell he cast? It wasn’t like the message said anything particularly dangerous, he reflected yet again. To any outside observer, it was just a father congratulating his son.

Draco placed the letter back beneath the closet floorboards and shut the door against the memories, and the pain.